Monday, April 23, 2018


This week three much loved passages make up the readings. The first tells the arresting story of an encounter between a spiritually curious Ethiopian, and Philip the Evangelist, one of seven ‘deacons’ the early church appointed, not to be confused with Philip the Apostle, one of the Twelve. The deacons’ special  role was to take responsibility for help and assistance to poor Christians, and thus free others to be preachers -- though as this episode, and Philip’s title ‘Evangelist’  shows, deacons could also be very effective in spreading the Gospel.

The second reading is taken from the first Letter of John. This letter, the most frequently quoted Epistle not authored by Paul, boldly and unqualifiedly asserts that ‘God is love’. It is the very affirmation, of course, that underlay the creation of deacons as visible  agents of that love. On the surface, the Gospel passage seems to have a different tone. Jesus develops the metaphor of the True Vine in a way that ends with a warning. Like the metaphor of the Good Shepherd (from last week), however, this image is drawn from a world very different to ours, and so needs a little interpretative work to ‘get the message’.
Vision of Divine Love -- Hildegard of Bingen
The message, contrary to appearance perhaps, does explain the connection between this Gospel and the readings that precede it. Together they reflect three fundamental truths about Jesus that lie at the heart of the Christian faith. First, Jesus is the suffering servant to whom Isaiah, the greatest of all the Jewish prophets, looked for Israel’s salvation. Second, God and love are so deeply intertwined that even a ‘sheep led to the slaughter’ is a far more adequate means, and expression, of God’s saving power than any ‘conquering hero’ would be. Third we will only be transformed into the image of the God of love if we allow our lives to become wholly dependent for their vitality on life in Christ.

Apart from Christ we ‘can do nothing’, and may as well be withered branches, at most worth throwing on a fire. God is love, but the price of divine love (in human terms) is high. That is what Jesus showed on the Cross, and what human beings often struggle to acknowledge.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


The Good Shepherd (MAFA)
The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd Sunday". It gets this name partly from the fact that the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ – but chiefly because, in each of the three years of the lectionary, the Gospel for Easter IV is taken from John Chapter 10, in which Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself.

The three passages all have a slightly different emphasis. Verses 11-18 provide the reading in Year B (this year). In these verses Jesus dwells on the contrast between a shepherd tending his own sheep, and a hired hand who is merely looking after some else’s. When danger threatens the flock, the hired hand flees; the true shepherd stays to defend them – even to the point of ‘laying down his life’.

This is certainly an exaggeration. Even the most devoted shepherds in Jesus' time were unlikely to die in defense of their sheep. Hyperbole of this kind is characteristic of Middle Eastern story telling, but the exaggeration serves to make a powerful point. When applied to Jesus, the image of the 'good shepherd'  draws our attention not just to the Crucifixion, but to the Resurrection. On the cross, Jesus hangs in complete isolation, abandoned by his followers. Fear and faithlessness has led every one of his 'sheep' to scatter. Crushed by pain and injury, surrounded by hatred and contempt, he is left completely alone.
A Shepherd -- Marc Chagall (1931)

Yet, amazingly, as these very 'sheep' soon learn, he has given his life, for them. It is his faithless, feeble followers that the Risen Christ first seeks out. His love for those he has made ‘his own’ transcends an impossibly testing time. Sheep they may be, but they are his, and as we now know, this love transforms them. 

The Epistle draws the obvious moral lesson – ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us . . . How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’. The love embodied in the Risen Christ returning to gather his sheep together again both demands and inspires this response.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


The message of the Resurrection of Jesus in the light of his Crucifixion lies in an assurance that, in some mysterious way, the sin and suffering that so obviously mark and mar human life have been overcome. Despite appearances, evil does not triumph and death is not the end. But how? Those troubling appearances are no less common than they were. Can we really accept that their reality is ultimately temporary?

People have often found it tempting to seek reassurance in the hope of life in a world other than this one, where there is neither pain nor grief. From this perspective, the resurrected Christ is a prototype (so to speak) of our own heavenly existence,  Yet a striking sentence from the Epistle for this Sunday suggests otherwise."Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." Whatever may be true about our future, the author says, the Resurrection assurance is that we are God's children now, and in the light of that assurance, we are enabled to live comfortably while still in ignorance of what we will be. What we do know is that, when all is revealed, we will not remain the same, but be transformed. We will become like Christ, by willingly sacrificing our egos to him when we are finally able see him as he really is.

Peter Preaching
This is a different and more inspiring vision of heaven, than the common idea of a continuation of this world minus its troubles. Importantly, it resonates better with the fears and doubts of the first disciples recorded in this week's passage from Luke. Jesus gives them tangible evidence of his reality, but only enough to satisfy them that he is not a ghostly apparition. The aim is to make them better enable to recognize the Messiah in him.

The passage from Acts is part of Peter's Pentecostal proclamation in the market place. Here too, however, the emphasis is on his present experience, not on speculation about the future. Faith in Jesus, he tells his audience, has made the ordinary Peter they "see and know" to be "strong" and "given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you". A remarkable transformation is what he has become now. It is what he is now that will enable him to face evil and death in the future when he confronts his own martyrdom. He has been reborn with a spiritual confidence in the present that is the gift of God in Christ.

Monday, April 2, 2018


Incredulity of St Thomas -- Matthias Stom
The Gospel readings for the ‘octave’ of Easter -- the eight days immediately following Easter Day -- recount the post-Resurrection appearances of a bodily Jesus. They conclude with the story of ‘doubting’ Thomas, which provides the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter in all three years of the Lectionary. It is, so to speak, the 'proof' text of the Resurrection. Yet, as is well known, the episode ends with Jesus suggesting that faith does not need empirical proof, and even that we are better off without it.

On succeeding Sundays, the Gospel passages return to pre-Resurrection episodes. This serves as  a helpful reminder that the bodily appearances of Jesus were a special gift to a very few disciples for a very short time. Moreover, it was only after these appearances ceased, that the followers of Jesus, even those who had personally witnessed his Resurrection, came to understand the full significance of the Resurrection, and all that preceded it. It was when Christ had disappeared from their sight (at the Ascension) that they were able to proclaim the Gospel. In the words of this week's Epistle, “what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” has a far wider implication than a merely miraculous event. The Resurrection is “the word of life”. It is about how we should live.  

The Apostles Receive their Mission
One aspect of the way that early Christians revolutionized their lives is especially striking. The lesson from Acts recounts that they abandoned “private ownership of any possessions”, sharing their material goods so that “there was not a needy person among them”. Something like this admirable arrangement is extolled in the very short Psalm that follows. But it did not persist, and given human beings as they are, it could not have been expected to do so. The heady days of the early Church, as Paul's letters confirm, were soon displaced by the emergence of a 'human, all too human' institution. Yet, the fragility of the kind of life that the first Christians embraced, does not show the Gospel they proclaimed to be empty. On the contrary, it points to its vital double nature -- reality constantly renewed by hope. "If we say that we have no sin," John's Epistle tell us, "we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Yet this is not a counsel of despair, because "if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." However mundane the Church temporal, Christians cannot relinquish the hope of the Church triumphant. There is a deep unity waiting to be discovered in the Risen and the Ascended Christ. When, Christians fail to realize it, as they inevitably will, their task is to return repeatedly to the reality that grounds it --  “Jesus Christ the righteous”, since is he is “. . . the atoning sacrifice for sins”.